Phulkari is a traditional embroidery of the subcontinent. In Punjab, Muslim and Hindu communities each developed their own unique motifs and designs.
Last Updated: 22 May 2014
Phulkari is a type of traditional embroidery found in the Indian subcontinent. In Pakistan, phulkari work was done in Punjab and in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including the Swat Valley and Hazara area. It takes its name from two Sanskrit words, phul meaning flower and kari meaning work, thus flower work. In a broader sense, phulkari embroidery consists mainly of geometric designs and floral motifs, but within the Hindu and Sikh community, phulkari work also included figures and objects from everyday life. The word phulkari is also specifically used for a shawl (chaddar) that had phulkari embroidery on it.
Phulkari embroidery was traditionally made for personal and domestic use such as on women’s shirts (kurtas), table covers, bed sheets, pillowcases, gift covers, wall hangings and shawls. Today, very few people make or use phulkari work. They are mostly displayed in museums or bought for one’s personal collection.
Traditionally, Phulkari was made on khaddar cloth, which is a rough but sturdy cotton fabric hand spun at home. The embroidery was done using a soft and glossy silk thread; sometimes cotton thread was also used. Patterns and motifs were not copied from books but were handed down from mother to daughter.
Phulkari embroidery is unique from other local embroideries in two respects. First, the main stitch used in phulkari is the darning stitch. A darning stitch is simply a row of straight stitches woven in and out of the fabric. Variations in the length of the stitches create a geometric design; in phulkari embroidery the length of the darning stitch was controlled by counting the threads of the khaddar cloth. Other stitches used were the chain stitch to outline a motif and the satin stitch to fill in the motif.
Second, phulkari embroidery is done on the reverse side of the fabric. The person embroidering didn’t need to see the front since they controlled the pattern by counting the threads of the khaddar cloth. A single numerical error could destroy the symmetry and therefore the beauty of the entire piece!
The exact place and era in which this craft originated is difficult to pinpoint. Some say phulkari is mentioned in the Rig Veda of the Aryans, while others claim it was the Scythians or the Iranians who bought it to the subcontinent. The oldest known phulkari embroidery is found on a handkerchief (rumal) and is attributed to Bebe Nanak, the sister of Guru Nanak Dev Ji who was the founder of Sikh religion. It is dated to around the year 1500 and is still preserved in Gurduspur of Indian Punjab. In the story of Heer-Ranjha, written in the mid 18th century, Heer has a few phulkari articles of clothing in her dowry.
In Punjab, phulkari work was most commonly and traditionally seen on shawls. The khaddar cloth was mostly dyed red, a color considered lucky by both Hindus and Sikhs. Other common colors included various shades of blue, yellow, reddish-brown, white, and sometimes black. The phulkari work was usually done with maroon, pink, orange, green, yellow, golden, and white threads.
Women of west Punjab (now in Pakistan) usually embroidered geometrical patterns using triangles, squares, diamonds, and v-shaped patterns with silk thread of one or two colors. In eastern Punjab (now in India), women would depict every-day objects, rituals, and even narratives in their embroidery. Rolling pins, cauliflowers, cows, rivers and human figures were all common motifs. The embroidery work of this area was more colorful, and often wool or cotton thread was also used. Hindu women would purposely leave a small defect or flaw in their embroidery in order to ward off the evil eye.
A very special type of phulkari shawl, known as bagh (meaning garden in Farsi) was also stitched for special occasions. Unlike other phulkari shawls, baghs were so heavily embroidered that little of the background cloth was visible. In Punjab, upon the birth of a boy, a grandmother would begin a vari da bagh to give to his future bride; and upon the birth of a granddaughter, she would start to embroider a chope bagh to give to her on her wedding.